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Positano’s Beach House

The news that Positano’s may close — and become a beachfront home — elicited plenty of comments on “06880.”

Readers spoke of the restaurant in glowing terms. Some thought of its long-ago, long-running predecessor, Cafe de la Plage.

But in between those 2 spots, there was — briefly — a restaurant called the Beach House.

Loretta Hallock sent along a painting by Tony Marino. The Westport artist loved Westport scenes. This one captures beautifully the charm of the restaurant, the neighborhood, and the “off-season.”

Beach House - Tony Marino

 

Feral Cats, Blighted Home Cause Beach Concern

It’s a neighborhood nightmare. A blighted house creates visual pollution. There are health and fire hazards. Property values plummet.

Neighbors want to help. They worry about their health and homes, but they also care about the owner of the blighted house. They contact various agencies, which for a variety of reasons say they can’t act.

So — as desperate as they are — the neighbors won’t take the one step necessary to start the legal process in motion. Unwilling to cause an eviction — and not wanting to make waves — no one steps forward to make a formal complaint.

That’s the precarious situation with one home near the beach. It’s on Norwalk Avenue, off Soundview Drive.

The home is owned by a woman who seems to be a hoarder. It’s crammed with so much stuff and trash, it’s hard to see in. It’s also overrun by feral cats — up to 30, perhaps. They attack neighbors’ cats (clawing one in the eye, requiring expensive surgery).

The cats roam into yards up and down the street, occupying basements and crawl spaces of homes that were flooded and are awaiting teardown or renovation. One neighbor found 5 cats sleeping on her front porch. Fleas are rampant.

One of the cats climbs up into a neighbor's lawn ornament on Norwalk Avenue.

One of the cats climbs up into a neighbor’s lawn ornament on Norwalk Avenue.

Neighbors admit they are part of the problem. No one wants to sign a formal complaint.

Meanwhile, Westport’s blight law seems to apply only to abandoned houses. Neighbors say the health department has tried to help, but this seems out of their jurisdiction. Animal control has been called several times, but is not allowed to trap the cats or remove them. The Humane Society won’t take feral cats.

Homes near the beach sell quickly, for a couple of million dollars — at least. Yet at least one has been on the market for months. The hoarder/blight house seems to be a deal-breaker.

Still, no one will sign a formal complaint. No one wants to cause an eviction. They don’t want to be “that guy.”

At least one neighbor has offered to pay for his own landscaper to work on the hoarder/cat woman’s property. She refused.

“I am sensitive to (the Norwalk Avenue owner’s) plight,” a neighbor says. “I just want to do what is right for the cats, and for the neighborhood. I think we need to help her, not shame her or pepper her with violation tickets, which she won’t pay anyway. But it’s hard to know how to help.”

Meanwhile, the cats multiply.

The neighborhood waits. And worries.

Paying It Forward At Fenway

In the 4th inning last Friday in Boston, Red Sox catcher Christian Vazquez handed a foul ball to a 12-year-old boy. He immediately gave it to a little girl in the row behind.

The girl was surprised. Her mother was stunned.

Announcers Don Orsillo and Jerry Remy sprang into action. They dispatched reporter Gary Striewski to the stands. He gave the boy 2 baseballs and a gift bag, and got an interview in return.

The video went viral, on mlb.com, Yahoo Sports, Huffington Post and many other sites.

The generous lad is Ryan Gans. His aunt — Jennifer Gans Blankfein — lives in Westport. His grandparents are Linda and Lanny Gans, 40-plus-year residents of Weston.

Ryan’s father — Jen’s brother Bob Gans — played baseball at Weston High. He’s coached Ryan’s baseball team in Potomac, Maryland, where they now live.

Clearly, the Gans family has taught Ryan some great manners. As well as plenty of poise, for when he’s interviewed on TV.

(Hat tip to Betsy Pollak)

Curtain Falls On Adam Kaplan’s “Newsies”

Every actor dreams of Broadway.

Few make it. Fewer still get to perform in a show they adore, in roles they love. And do it over 600 times.

Adam Kaplan is that very rare actor. And he’s still only 24 years old.

Adam Kaplan

Adam Kaplan

The 2008 Staples grad — whose Players credits include “Romeo and Juliet,” “Children of Eden” and “Diary of Anne Frank” — parlayed his musical theater degree from Elon into 2 roles, plus understudy for the lead, in “Newsies.”

The long-running show closed last month. But it’s hard to envision a more exciting run for a young actor than that.

The musical about early 20th century newsboys captivated Adam the first time he saw it. Less than 6 months later — on February 19, 2013 — he was a “newsie” himself, on the Nederlander stage.

Throughout high school and college, he’d worked on shows from the ground up. Suddenly he was thrust into a tight-knit, cohesive cast. He was replacing a well-loved actor. Add the pressure of performing on Broadway — well, sure, he was nervous.

But, Adam says, he was accepted instantly. “I was a member of ‘the gang.'” Quickly, he realized, he was part of something special.

Adam Kaplan (carrying a fellow actor on his back) strikes the same pose as shown on the Nederlander Theater door. This shot was taken the day the poster went up.

Adam Kaplan (carrying a fellow actor on his back) strikes the same pose as shown on the theater door (where he’s wearing a striped shirt). This shot was taken the day the poster went up.

There was plenty of press, and promotions on shows like “Good Morning America.” Fans wrote emails and letters, and thronged the stage door.

“It was all the glitz and glamour I expected — times 10,” Adam says.

It was also hard work. For a year and a half — 8 times a week — Adam sang and danced with high energy and great intensity.

“You have to work to keep it fresh,” he admits. “It’s important to remember that it may be our 500th performance. But for most of the audience, this is their 1st.”

He remembers his 1st time seeing “Newsies.” And — years earlier — his 1st Broadway show. So does the rest of the cast.

“We’d talk backstage about how important it is to inspire kids, just like we were inspired,” he says.

Inspire they did. Adam and the other actors received piles of mail from fans — young and older — who described being bullied, having a bad day or losing their passion for something, then being lifted skyward by “Newsies.”

“Not every show can do that,” Adam says.

A very moving letter from a fan. A high school girl told Adam that "Newsies" changed her life. After seeing it, she had the courage to try out for a show -- and is now part of the theater community.

A very moving letter from a fan. A high school girl told Adam that “Newsies” changed her life. After seeing it, she had the courage to try out for a show — and is now part of the theater community.

The cast, in turn, was inspired by the letters. They read and responded to every one.

“I hit the jackpot,” Adam reiterates. “I have a friend who joined a long-running show in the middle. The cast was so jaded. But everyone in ‘Newsies’ was so happy to be there.

“It was the 1st show for a lot of us. We all lifted each other up.”

Adam also appreciates the chance to play multiple roles. In addition to the authority figure Morris, and a rabble-rousing newsboy, he went on nearly 40 times as the understudy for Jack Kelly, the tour de force lead.

Adam’s last show as Jack was August 10 — the day after his birthday. It was a very emotional day.

The cast had learned in late June that “Newsies” would close soon. No one saw it coming.

Adam Kaplan and "Newsies" fans (called "fansies").

Adam Kaplan (left) celebrates the final weeks.

“Lots of shows, when they know the end is near, they lose their edge,” Adam says. “Things start to slide. We were fresh. But Disney [the producer] wanted to end on top, and they did.”

Of course, “Newsies” lives on. Three weeks ago Adam went to Chicago, to promote a national tour. He sang “Santa Fe” — one of his favorite songs — in front of 18,000 people in Millenium Park. He felt like a rock star.

“Newsies” certainly has a devoted audience. “I don’t think I’ll ever be part of a show that had the energy of of closing night,” he says. “We got standing ovations after every number. People even applauded after their favorite lines.”

Even after it’s closed, fans write in. They say the show gave them the confidence to go on, despite tumultuous times. “That’s what’s so rewarding about theater in general, and this show in particular,” Adam says.

Some of those fans are from his home town. The young actor includes Westport in his official biography, because “I love this place.” As a result, the stage door crowd often included current or former Westporters who had not known beforehand that they’d see a Staples Player alum on stage.

The work of a star is never done.

The work of a star is never done.

Still, as always happens to actors, Adam Kaplan is looking for his next gig. He just finished shooting a TV pilot, and is also auditioning for other stage roles. He may be back on Broadway, or with a national touring company or regional theater.

“It’s back to the grind,” he says. “Being an actor is what I always wanted. I love performing. But I never expected to be here so soon. I’m just so happy to be part of this community.”

Westport’s School Daze

Earlier this month, I gave a tour of Staples High School to the 50th reunion class of 1964.

Dozens of Social Security recipients — many of whom looked like they could still fit into their varsity letter jackets or cheerleading skirts — wandered wide-eyed through a 3-story building filled with Wi-Fi, whiteboards, and enough flat-screen TVs to make Best Buy go gaga.

The address was familiar: 70 North Avenue. But in the half-century since they graduated, the school underwent several major changes. Besides athletic fields, the auditorium and the JFK “Ask not…” plaque — a gift of that class to the school — there’s little they recognized.

Staples is an extreme example. But nearly every Westport school has been renovated — or at least reconfigured — since it was built.

In honor of the 1st week of school, here’s a look back at how our 8 schools got where they are.

The original Staples High School on Riverside Avenue.

The original Staples High School on Riverside Avenue.

Staples High School. The first classes were held in the National Hall building — the red brick structure across the Post Road bridge from downtown — because Horace Staples’ Riverside Avenue school was not yet ready. That structure — located approximately where the Saugatuck Elementary School auditorium is today — opened on October 31, 1884.

In 1937, a 2nd building opened just north of the 1st. It’s now the central unit of Saugatuck El (minus the gym and cafeteria wing). That 2nd addition was added in 1948.

The "modern" Staples -- now Saugatuck Elementary School.

The “modern” Staples — now Saugatuck Elementary School.

Ten years later, Staples moved to its present North Avenue site. The sparkling new school included 7 buildings, connected only by open-air walkways. Three more buildings were constructed 5 years later. It was great in the early fall and late spring, not so smart the rest of the year.

The 1st version of the North Avenue campus: 6 separate buildings.

The 1st version of the North Avenue campus: 7 separate buildings.

Later, in a 3-year project ending beginning in 1978, the 9 separate buildings were connected. That version of Staples lasted until 2005, when the $74 million current school — built while the old one was being demolished — opened for business.

Bedford Middle School. For 42 years starting in 1884, 7th through 9th graders attended the same small original Staples on Riverside Avenue. In 1926 they moved across Doubleday Field to a new “Bedford Junior High” (now Kings Highway Elementary School). In 1958, BJHS took over the recently vacated Staples on Riverside Avenue. It was renamed Bedford Middle School in 1983, when Staples became a 4-year high school. Then, in the 1990s, it too moved all the way across town. A sparkling new Bedford rose just north of Staples, on the site of a former Nike missile base. The only connection it has to the 1st school is a bust of its original namesake, Edward T. Bedford.

Coleytown Middle School. First opened in 1965 as Westport’s 3rd junior high school, Coleytown looked like the most futuristic school imaginable. Debates raged for years as to whether the circular design worked or not. (Architect Joseph Salerno’s building was, however, selected for a national exhibition on school design.) It became a middle school in 1983, and more than a decade later underwent a substantial renovation.

Coleytown Junior High (Photo/Fred Cantor)

Coleytown Junior High (Photo/Fred Cantor)

Coleytown Elementary School. Despite one renovation, this school has not changed much since it opened in the early 1950s. It’s got its original bones — and it’s always been an elementary school.

Green’s Farms Elementary School. It looks like it’s been there on South Morningside forever. Though it has, the current building is much larger than the original. And it was on hiatus for a while in the 1980s and ’90s, when our school population dipped substantially. In those years, the building served as home to the Westport Arts Center.

Kings Highway Elementary School. Until 1958, this building was the site of Bedford Junior High. That year, it became an elementary school. If you look closely, you can still see the “Bedford” name over the front door.

Long Lots Elementary School. Opened in 1955 as Westport’s 2nd junior high, it has undergone numerous renovations and changes. It’s morphed from a junior high to a K-8 school, and now it’s just an elementary school. The northernmost wing burned to the ground in 1974, in a fire set by an 8th grader.

Long Lots, when it was junior high.

Long Lots, when it was a junior high.

Saugatuck Elementary School. Riverside Avenue — home of the old Staples High and Bedford Junior/Middle School — is the 2nd location for Saugatuck El. For nearly a century it sat on Bridge Street, where the Saugatuck elderly housing complex is now. Its original name was the Bridge Street School.

In memoriam:  

Bedford Elementary School. A handsome building on Myrtle Avenue near the center of town, it was repurposed 30 or so years ago as Town Hall.

Burr Farms Elementary School (approximately 1958-83). Perhaps the cheapest, most hastily built school in the history of education. Made of steel (perhaps tin), it was nonetheless a great place (and, not coincidentally, my alma mater). Today it is the site of homes and athletic fields, near the start of Burr School Road off Long Lots.

Burr Farms Elementary School (computer image by Steve Katz)

Burr Farms Elementary School (computer image by Steve Katz)

Hillspoint (approximately 1960-85). Some brainiac had the idea of putting the gym in the center of a circular building. Noise problems, anyone? Today it’s a childcare center on Hillspoint Road.

(Got any good — or bad — memories of your Westport school building? Click “Comments” below. Please include your real name — and graduation date.)

 

 

John McGrath: You CAN Go Home Again

The new face of Westport includes many young families. Parents are in their 30s or 40s; their kids are in elementary school, or even younger.

Many have moved from New York. Others come from around the country. There are plenty of internationals too.

But a surprising number of “newcomers” are actually “old-timers.” They’re men and women who grew up in Westport, then left for college and careers. Now — at an age their own parents might have been when they moved here — these Staples grads are moving back, with their tots in tow.

The reasons vary: a desire for their kids to be close to grandparents. The lure of schools and beaches. A wish for their children to have the same type of growing-up experiences they did.

Some of the returnees always figured they’d move back. Some thought, never in a bazillion years.

John and Danielle McGrath, and their kids.

John and Danielle McGrath, and their kids.

John McGrath is one of the boomerang gang. A Coleytown Elementary and Middle School student who graduated from Staples in 1995, he continued his football career at Trinity College.

He soon became a successful New York bond trader. He and his wife Danielle bought a weekend home in Westport in 2008, when their daughter was born. In 2012 they moved here full-time, near the beach.

“I loved Westport when I was growing up,” John says. “It felt like my friends and I were always outside, playing soccer or baseball. Those are my earliest memories.”

As they got older, John says, the hangouts became Compo and Longshore. Describing his youth to colleagues who lived elsewhere, he realizes “how much there was to do here. I’m so proud I had the chance to grow up here.”

Now, as an adult, he’s thinking about other things: excellent schools, relatively low property taxes. But the amenities are still very, very important.

There's no place like Compo for kids.

There’s no place like Compo for kids.

Danielle grew up in southern Jersey, outside Philadelphia. Moving to her husband’s hometown, she was nervous that his friends would have to be hers. (Several of John’s best Westport friends have moved back to the area too.)

But she met a great group of people through schools and their kids’ activities. (Their daughter is 5; their son is 3.)

Now, John says, “she’s more popular in town than I ever was.”

Danielle also worried about leaving New York’s restaurants and cultural scene behind. She’s discovered plenty of good restaurants and culture here.

The Westport Country Playhouse helps anchor our cultural life.

The Westport Country Playhouse helps anchor our cultural life.

Some things have not changed. Westport Pizzeria is still in town (though it moved around the corner). Compo and Longshore are still fantastic.

Other things have changed somewhat. John’s daughter will attend Green’s Farms Elementary — a school that was closed when he was growing up. Staples is a new building, twice the size of the old. Bedford Middle School is new too.

John’s daughter skates at Longshore — the rink there is a new addition — and he hopes she’ll learn to sail at John Kantor’s nearby school. (“I never sailed,” John notes.) His kids may also be involved in music or theater, activities John never did. “There are so many options,” he says. “I just want them to be happy.”

“Westport still has the hometown feel,” John adds. “But there have definitely been upgrades, to move with the times.”

Then there’s Elvira’s. “We’re in there 2 or 3 times a day,” he says. “They know my kids — they know everyone’s kids. It’s awesome.”

Elvira's: the heartbeat of the Old Mill neighborhood.

Elvira’s: the heartbeat of the Old Mill neighborhood.

So — 35 years down the road — does John hope his daughter and son follow their father and grandparents’ lead, and move to Westport?

“I hope they travel, and experience a lot of different places,” John says. “If they decide in the end on Westport, that would be great.

“People call me a townie,” he concludes. “I lived for 15 years in New York, and I really appreciate that.

“But I chose to come back to Westport. And I’m glad I did.”

After-School Bus Service: Uh-Oh…

1st Selectman Jim Marpe today issued the following report, on the Westport Transit District’s after-school bus program:

After 30 years of successfully operating this service, the Federal Transit Administration recently determined that the after-school bus service provided by the Norwalk Transit District — Westport’s bus service operator — is considered an unauthorized public transit service route.

Because the stops and clientele involved only students, the FTA deemed the service “equivalent to a school bus service” and thus “non-compliant” with Federal transit regulations. Westport was given 30 days to become compliant or lose federal funding (65% of program costs) for the service, and the use of the buses.   With the start of the school year upon us, this decision took us by surprise, especially since the program had recently passed its triennial review.

Since receiving this disappointing notification, which potentially affects over 200 families and several hundred students, we have been actively working with our transit directors and state and federal representatives to first, seek a stay of this ruling and second, request an extension which would allow the funding and service to continue until January 1. State Representative Jonathan Steinberg has been particularly helpful in coordinating the legislative delegations and federal offices.

FTA logo

We hoped this extension would provide a reasonable amount of time for the Town and programs to see if it is possible to become “compliant,” while still safely serving our students, or explore and develop alternatives to the current system.

Senators Blumenthal and  Murphy and Congressman Himes also jointly signed a letter supporting Westport’s request for an extension, citing that ending this service will cause hardship to the many families and students who rely on it.

FTA regional administrator Mary Beth Mello had stated that she would provide Westport with a response to its extension request by today. Unfortunately, it was not the response we were hoping for. Ms. Mello informed us that the FTA determined “there was no mechanism for an extension in their regulations,” and denied our request.

However, Mello introduced a new appeal concept not previously mentioned to Westport, which she termed “applying for a waiver.” This entails publicly advertising for bid the potential after-school routes to private bus companies, combined with other outreach efforts. It also requires documenting these efforts and obtaining written responses that the contacted companies were not interested in providing this service, or would not provide it at a “reasonable” price.

The Norwalk Transit District operates Westport's buses.

The Norwalk Transit District operates Westport’s buses.

Marpe told Mello that Westport had already made a fairly exhaustive effort via phone to contact a long list of known companies in our area that provide such services. No company was interested at the time, or had the capacity to provide the needed service on short notice. This oral confirmation of our effort, however, did not satisfy the FTA since it requires substantial written confirmation of lack of interest in order to approve the waiver application.

We have made the determination that it is still in Westport’s best interest to try to apply for this waiver application. Working with the NTD, we will make our utmost effort to rapidly proceed with the required advertising and outreach. We will prepare the necessary documentation to present to the FTA for its approval. If it is approved, the NTD will then be able to restart our service for an as yet undetermined length of time.”

As you can surmise, even if we are able to accomplish the required “waiver” tasks in a very ambitious time frame, it is unlikely that we would receive waiver approval from Washington before the start of the school year. While I like to be optimistic, the likelihood of Westport receiving a waiver approval at the Washington level is unknown at this time.

Given this unfortunate situation, I am advising the after-school programs and parents that the bus service will almost certainly not be available for the start of the program year, and alternative travel plans should be put into place. We know this will be a hardship and may be more costly for many parents.

We will continue to work hard to resolve this issue. Hopefully, we will be able to obtain a waiver and have the bus service restored at some point during the fall.

EMTs Bike For Your Life

Four years ago, our July 4th fireworks were marred by a cardiac arrest. Enormous crowds kept Westport’s Emergency Medical Service from getting an ambulance to the patient as rapidly as they would like.

For years, sitting around the day room, EMTs had talked about forming an EMS bike team. Spurred by that unfortunate incident, Mike Salvatore — a paid EMS crew chief and paramedic already certified by the International Police Mountain Bike Association — began seeking funds.

An EMS biker, in action.

An EMS biker, in action.

That first year there were a few members who, like Mike, were previously certified. Last year he brought in an IPMBA instructor. Last month, a 2nd Westport team went through the process.

There are now 10 certified members. Each specialty mountain bike has emergency lights and a siren.

Each carries 40 pounds of essential medical and trauma equipment, including oxygen and a defibrillator.

Bike teams — a minimum of 2 members each — work a wide variety of events, including road races, parades, Taste of Saugatuck and the fireworks (where they were crucial early responders during another cardiac arrest).

The bikes take a huge beating. The ones purchased 3 years ago are in desperate need of repair and/or replacement.

The bike fleet.

The bike fleet.

Like all of EMS, the bike teams fundraise for their needs. Their goal is $20,000.

That covers the maintenance of current bikes, and the purchase of new bikes, equipment and specialized uniforms.

Donations can be sent to: Westport EMS, 50 Jesup Road, Westport, CT 06880. Put “Bike Team” on the memo line. Online, click the PayPal button at http://www.westportems.org/donate, and list “Bike Team” in the “Honor/Memory of” section.

Then hope you never have to see EMTs biking up to take care of you.

Though if you do, your contribution will insure that they’ll be there very, very quickly.

MadisonMott’s Move: A Win For Company, Community

Two years ago, when Luke Scott moved MadisonMott — his red-hot marketing/design firm — from South Norwalk to Saugatuck, it was like coming home.

The business was born here, and occupied 2 Post Road locations before heading to a converted mill in trendy SoNo.

Luke grew up here too, on Bridge Street — almost within sight of MadisonMott’s new Ketchum Street location.

madisonmott logoStill, moving into the old Mecklermedia building carried risks. Luke knew he’d have plenty of space, lots of light, and blazing fast internet. But the Saugatuck redevelopment was still in mid-construction. The promise of a cool, vibrant community was not yet reality.

What a difference 2 years makes.

Gault — the Saugatuck developer — “gave us space to build around our culture, our people and our vision,” Luke says.

Luke Scott, conducting a meeting right outside the MadisonMott office.

Luke Scott, conducting a meeting right outside the MadisonMott office.

(Full disclosure: I’ve known Luke since the late 1980s, when I coached him in soccer. He’s now a great friend, and a collaborator. MadisonMott created StaplesSoccer.com, which has been called [ahem] “the best high school sports website in the country.”)

Saugatuck Center is a place of people and vision, Luke notes. It’s been designed as an interactive, eating, shopping — and definitely walking — community.

“We loved SoNo,” Luke says. “We were leaving a place rich with dining, shops and transportation options.” They found all that — and more — in Saugatuck. “This has totally exceeded our expectations.”

The large parking lot is a bonus. So is the nearby train station. Luke, co-owner Kristen Briner or a colleague will meet a client or potential hire there. By the time they’ve finished the short walk to Ketchum Street, the visitor is inspired: by the area, and MadisonMott’s presence. (They’re further wowed by the firm’s open, collaborative floor plan — and ping pong table.)

The company bought 2 bikes. Any employee can borrow one. They use them to pick up coffee or lunch, or just ride along to the mini-park on Riverside Avenue for a break.

Jessica Trimble and Mike Barnes return from a coffee run.

Jessica Trimble and Mike Barnes return from a coffee run.

A couple of folks live in Black Rock. They bike from home to work and back, along the scenic Southport Beach/Burying Hill/Green’s Farms route.

The other day, the entire staff celebrated the launch of the company’s new website by singing karaoke at the Duck.

A patio with grill at the back of the MadisonMott office is another hangout. One client is located in an adjacent building. “They come in through the back door,” Luke says.

But it is the Saugatuck community that has really been key to the move’s success.

From the restaurants — the Whelk, Tarry Lodge, Tutti’s and all the others — to Craft Butchery, Saugatuck Sweets, 99 Bottles and Downunder, there’s a vibe that encourages friendliness, community and creativity.

The MadisonMott staff (with Luke Scott's son Jasper, green shirt).

The MadisonMott staff (with Luke Scott’s son Jasper, green shirt).

“We’re locals now, and we’re on a first-name basis with the other locals,” Luke says. “And it’s incredible how much high-level business is being done around here. There are a lot of young, creative people thriving in this area. It’s not urban or suburban. It’s a unique place — and it’s right on the water.”

Luke — whose 1st job was at the old Peter’s Bridge Market — has a special perspective. He’s a former area resident whose business now thrives there.

“As a teenager, you shun the idea of a ‘hometown,'” he says. “With a company like this, you spend a lot of time together, in an office. We are very lucky to call this ‘home.'”

Katharine Ordway’s Peaceful Preserve

Katharine Ordway was one of those very wealthy, very impressive, semi-mysterious people who lived quietly among us, back in the day.

Her father bought 60% of the stock of a struggling mining company later known as 3M — not a bad career move. She graduated cum laude from the University of Minnesota with degrees in botany and art, and later studied biology and land-use planning at Columbia.

Katharine Ordway was equally at home in social settings and outdoors.

Katharine Ordway was equally at home in social settings and outdoors.

After inheriting part of an $18.8 million estate — real money in 1948 — she became (according to Macalester College) second only to John D. Rockefeller, Jr. as “a private contributor to natural area conservation in American history.”

The quiet woman  helped save over 31,000 acres of Great Plains prairies, a few Hawaiian islands, and land in many other parts of the country. She is revered by the Nature Conservancy for her philanthropy, commitment and foresight.

She lived for decades in a beautiful home off Goodhill Road in Weston. Today, 62 acres behind her estate comprise the Katharine Ordway Preserve. It’s wooded, riparian (the Saugatuck River runs through it), and very peaceful.

It’s also a secret. Though it was opened in 1979 — the year she died — even some neighbors don’t know it’s there.

A spirited group of nature-lovers do, though. Working with the Nature Conservancy’s Connecticut chapter, they’ve contributed hundreds of man (and woman) hours to the preserve. They’ve cleared brush, removed invasive species, planted specimen trees, created a 2-acre arboretum, and cleaned trails.

Now they want local residents to enjoy the fruits of their labors.

The view from a trail high in the Ordway Preserve.

The view from a trail high in the Ordway Preserve.

The other day, Westporter Bob Fatherley invited me to hike the preserve. We were joined by a few others, including Alec Head of Westport; the Conservancy’s David Gumbart, and Mark Mainieri, the property’s steward.

I learned about the legend of Fred Moore. He was Katharine Ordway’s estate caretaker — as well as Weston’s tree warden and fire marshal.

As we walked, the men talked about the many contributors to the restoration of the preserve. They spoke with pride of the 20 trees donated by Weston Gardens, and the pro bono work provided by Weston Arborists (owned by Fred Moore’s son Jeff).

Hiking the Ridge Trail.

Hiking the Ridge Trail.

The arboretum is particularly impressive. Now rid of high brush and invasive plants, it’s a serene habitat for birds and butterflies. (The preserve also hosts deer, coyotes, and plenty of wild turkeys.)

They talked reverently of Katharine Ordway (who endowed not only this preserve, but also Devil’s Den). “She was a woman of means, but also a woman of the earth,” Bob said. “She was one of the first people to take private capital, and make it work for open space.”

“This is a spot of spiritual refreshment,” Bob added. “It is humbling to take care of it.”

A plaque honors Katharine Ordway.

A plaque honors Katharine Ordway.

Katharine Ordway’s ashes were scattered at her favorite site — a place she visited every October, to enjoy spectacular foliage. It’s high on a hill surrounded by mountain laurel, near a large boulder that bears a plaque. Soon, the Nature Conservancy hopes, a small bench will allow hikers to sit and honor the woman who worked so hard to preserve this land, and hundreds of thousands of other acres around the country.

Katharine’s imprint on the American conservation movement remains large. And — although most of us don’t know it — it is especially strong in the town Katharine Ordway called home.

Literally, in her own back yard.

(The Katharine Ordway Preserve is located at 165 Goodhill Road in Weston. It is open from dawn to dusk — no bikes or pets, though. Note that the base of the entrance is severely rutted!)

Some of the preserve's most ardent supporters, at Kay's Trail. From left: Bob Fatherley, David Gumbart, Lou Bregy, Dave Thompson, Alec Head and Mark Mainieri.

Some of the preserve’s most ardent supporters. From left: Bob Fatherley, David Gumbart, Lou Bregy, Dave Thompson, Alec Head and Mark Mainieri.